eLife digest | Sexually dimorphic control of gene expression in sensory neurons regulates decision-making behavior in C. elegans

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Sexually dimorphic control of gene expression in sensory neurons regulates decision-making behavior in C. elegans

eLife digest

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States

For almost all species of animal, males and females will often behave differently in similar situations. Little is known about how these sex-specific differences are generated or, for example, how different the nervous system of a male is to that of a female. Moreover, it is also poorly understood how these underlying differences based on the biological sex of an animal are integrated with and influenced by its experiences and environment.

The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has two sexes, hermaphrodites and males. The male worms behave differently to the hermaphrodites in a number of situations. This means that these animals offer the opportunity to explore and understand sex-specific differences in behavior. It is also possible to analyze the underlying factors that contribute to behavior in C. elegans, because it has a relatively simple and well-defined nervous system.

Now, Hilbert and Kim show that a signal that influences how C. elegans explores in response to chemicals in its environment is expressed differently in male and hermaphrodite worms. The signal in question is molecule called DAF-7, which is released by several sensory neurons—nerve cells that are used for detecting cues from the environment. The sensory neurons that release DAF-7 are found in both sexes of C. elegans but the specific way that the male worms express this signal encourages them to search for mates. Hermaphrodites, on the other hand, do not need to search for mates because they can fertilize their own eggs.

Hilbert and Kim showed that the biological sex in combination with multiple other inputs – including the animal’s past diet and age – regulate how the DAF-7 signal is expressed in C. elegans. These inputs all converge onto a single pair of sensory neurons, which integrate the inputs and enable the worm to assess its current and past experiences and alter its behavior accordingly.

Moving forward the next challenge is to understand how information about both external environment and internal states, such as hunger, are communicated to and integrated by these sensory neurons. Decoding the signals behind this process may illuminate how biological sex and internal states influence behavior in other species of animals.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.21166.002